Business owners and some residents slowly returned to parts of this storm-struck city and surrounding communities early yesterday, prying...

Share story

NEW ORLEANS — Business owners and some residents slowly returned to parts of this storm-struck city and surrounding communities early yesterday, prying back plywood and stepping over ruined steeples on the first day of a staggered re-entry program scheduled to move ZIP code by ZIP code, parish by parish, nearly three weeks after mass evacuations prompted by Hurricane Katrina.

Carol Winn Crawford, pastor of 130-year-old Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church on St. Charles Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood, stood in the sanctuary where roof slates now rest in the pews. Outside, the brick steeple was reduced to rubble.

“Not this Sunday,” Crawford said, referring to when she planned to resume services, “but the next.”

After passing through armed checkpoints, many business owners were seeing their businesses for the first time since evacuating before the storm hit, on Aug. 29, and eventually flooded 80 percent of the city.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

They arrived in a city with little electricity and mostly undrinkable water, where soldiers did jumping jacks on Napoleon Avenue at sunrise. About 1,000 workers from Entergy repaired utility poles and untangled power lines from the fallen limbs of live oaks. Mayor Ray Nagin has ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew indefinitely.

Some businesses promised to reopen almost immediately. Others said they would need time to make repairs, from either storm damage or vandalism and looting.

Most were on higher ground in a city where much of the land is below sea level, and several said they were relieved the damage was limited, all things considered. And for some people who never left the city, the return of the business owners meant more than just a neighborly reunion.

“I’ve got like 2 gallons of water left, so I hope people come back soon and open something up,” said Bill Roach, 48, standing outside his second-floor room in an apartment house near the corner of Magazine and Jena streets in the Uptown area.

Roach, noting the light traffic coming up Magazine, said he was expecting more of a morning rush into town. “I’m surprised they’re not lining the streets right now,” he said.

Business owners are being allowed to return this weekend to four areas: Uptown, the French Quarter, the Central Business District and, across the Mississippi River, the neighborhood of Algiers.

Orleans Parish, which has the same boundaries as the city of New Orleans, had 10,460 establishments with 208,288 employees and an annual payroll of $7 billion, according to a 2003 Census Bureau breakdown, the most recent available.

Residents are expected to be able to return to the same four areas on a staggered basis over the next week, beginning with Algiers tomorrow and ending with the French Quarter the following Monday. But many residents have been unclear on the schedule, and some began returning yesterday. The reopening could bring as many as 200,000 people back to the city, whose population was about 445,000 before the storm.

The city on Friday released re-entry guidelines it planned to distribute at two primary entry points, the intersection of Interstate 10 East at the Pontchartrain Expressway and the West Bank Expressway into Algiers.

Among the warnings:

• “You are entering at your own risk. The City of New Orleans remains a hazardous site, and ongoing health and safety issues are being assessed.”

• “You may not be outside between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m., either in a vehicle or on foot. This will be strictly enforced. Keep personal identification with you at all times.”

• “Police and fire services are limited. The 911 system is not fully functional at this time.”

Nagin has said he has been criticized for not reopening parts of the city sooner. Others say it remains far from ready for residents.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who is leading the federal recovery effort, warned of continuing safety and health risks from floodwaters, sludge and tap water.

“We will continue to work with local and state leaders to support the shared goal of allowing residents to eventually return in a safe and sustainable manner,” Allen said in a statement. “I urge all residents returning to use extreme caution if they return and to consider delaying their return until safer and more livable conditions are established.”

In Algiers yesterday morning, Serge and Mai Chatain found their business intact after driving all night from Houston to check on it. They own a nail salon.

“We open the door, and the phone rings,” Serge Chatain said. They agreed to meet the caller, a drugstore owner, at 4 p.m.

“They need nails,” Mai Chatain said. “They have horrible nails.”

Not everyone could return to business so quickly.

Liem Vu, owner of a discount market in Algiers, found his store broken into and the shelves bare. Anything portable was stolen.

“Even the meat slicer, the microwave, the TV for the security camera,” Vu said.

Vu said he sympathized with the looters, to a degree.

“Food, OK,” he said. “People went a little bit too far.”

Areas outside of New Orleans also began reopening yesterday.

Jefferson Parish, west of the city, allowed full access.

In St. Bernard Parish, where floodwaters had risen to 20 feet and the Murphy Oil refinery had spilled thousands of barrels, parts of the Arabi and Chalmette neighborhoods were opened at dawn for residents to take stock of their ruined homes. But as the sun rose over Louisiana 46, the main road through the parish, the only cars passing the National Guard checkpoints were military convoys and unmarked police.

Birds were calling and dogs roamed down an unmarked side street. Shotgun houses sat on stilts. A television set dangled 5 feet from the ground, suspended by a plug still attached on the other side of the wall.

East of the Violet Canal, on the low-lying side of the railroad tracks along the Mississippi River, three young men in a green truck towing a trailer parked next to 2005 Riverbend Drive. They were retrieving whatever they could for friends and family scattered across the country.

One of the three men helping, Darryn Melerine, wanted to find his father’s rings from their nearby house.

“Watch out for the snakes,” Melerine said. He and the others then waded into the house. He looked in the living room, then the bedroom. Finally finding the rings amid a mattress and an upended dresser with a broken mirror, Melerine cupped them and said, “This is what I came for.”

They walked back over the wooden pilings and downed branches in the yard and got into the truck and drove off toward Violet, where the main road was covered in mud.

Back in New Orleans, Gwen and John Deakle returned from their 600-acre farm in Lumberton, Miss., to the elegant, five-bedroom house they own in the French Quarter. They had been warned of damage behind the iron gates leading to the back yard, but not of the extent. A third-floor wall of Antoine’s, a historic French-Creole restaurant next door, had collapsed in their courtyard.

“Everything looks so good from the street, and then,” Deakle said, cutting herself off in midsentence.

Even as power remained out and ferns withered on the balcony, a flashlight-tour of the interior found the antiques intact behind the shuttered windows.

“Like everybody says,” she added, “it could have been worse.”

Perhaps not at the Uptown Wal-Mart store, built within the past year but destroyed by looters.

“They took everything — all the electronics, the food, the bikes,” said John Stonaker, a Wal-Mart security officer. “People left their old clothes on the floor when they took new ones. The only thing left are the country-and-western CDs. You can still get a Shania Twain album.”

New York Times reporters Michael Brick, Michael Luo and Timothy Williams contributed to this report; details on Wal-Mart were provided by The Associated Press.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.